Visual Culture

6 Photographers Making Powerful Work about Childhood

Jacqui Palumbo
Sep 12, 2019 9:48PM

Luisa Dörr, from the series “Maysa,” 2014–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

Each of us has experienced childhood and felt it slip away as we age. We are at our most curious and adaptable as children, before our worldview becomes rigid with the weight of experience. In many ways, photographers seek to reclaim the better qualities of adolescence, approaching a new subject with inquisitiveness and an open mind. When children become the subject, those qualities are especially crucial in order to see the world as they do. The six photographers below have captured various stages of childhood in different parts of the world. Their images celebrate wonder, resiliency, beauty, family bonds, and strength.

Jesse Burke

Providence, Rhode Island

Jesse Burke
I see a Darkness, 2012

When Jesse Burke’s first-born daughter, Clover Lee, was five years old, he began exploring the natural world with her. Burke, who lives in Rhode Island with his family, considers the great outdoors to be a classroom that provides essential tools for life. Over five years, they periodically went into the wild together, taking road trips across the country. In 2015, Burke compiled a selection of his photographs in the monograph Wild & Precious.

“On the road we talk about the vastness of nature and try to get more in touch with the earth,” wrote Burke in his artist statement. “Together we document the routes we drive, the landscapes we discover, the creatures we encounter, even the roadside motels where we sleep.” Since he published the book, his younger daughters, Poppy Dee and Honey Bee, have grown older and joined in on the adventures.

In Wild & Precious, you can feel Burke’s presence as he witnesses Clover gaze out into an open vista or curl under a blanket with flushed cheeks. There is a sense of tenderness and curiosity in each frame. One night while she slept, he wrote a letter to her that he published with the project.

“Every day you are bigger and braver. I know I can’t ask you to stay small, to stay innocent. Nature will run its course. You will change and grow,” he wrote. “The metamorphosis is beautiful to watch, but heartbreaking. Oh, sweet child, I beg you to be wild, but stay precious.”

Juuso Westerlund

Helsinki, Finland

Juuso Westerlund, from the series “Heartbeats,” 2010–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

Like any father, Juuso Westerlund began snapping photos when his first son, Erkki, was born. But not all fathers are photographers. Over a year later, when Erikki was joined by his sibling, Antero, Westerlund began to mull over the body of work that he was instinctively amassing.

The series, “Heartbeats,” is nine years in the making and ongoing, until his sons decide they no longer wish to be photographed by their dad. The pictures paint a portrait of a buoyant childhood in a cozy wooden house, set against a wanderlust-inducing corner of the world—an island suburb of Helsinki called Laajasalo, to be exact.

“They are both very lively and social kids,” Westerlund said. “The older one being a bit more serious, always planning for the next move. The younger one being more carefree, dreamy, never rushing.” “Heartbeats” provides an outlet for Westerlund’s musings on universal themes: “Boyhood, longing, innocence, vulnerability, mortality,” he offered. “What does childhood mean, and how does it feel?”

Dig a little deeper into the work, and Westerlund’s own conflicted childhood bubbles to the surface. His father passed away from alcoholism when the photographer was nine years old. Westerlund crystallizes his children’s memories as moments he personally never had. “Although I’m documenting my sons’ childhoods,” he explained, “it is also my memories that I’m salvaging, for myself.”

Tawny Chatmon

Upper Marlboro, Maryland

Tawny Chatmon
The Redemption/ Girl Enlightened, 2018-2019
The Agora Culture
Tawny Chatmon
The Awakening/ Not Charlotte, 2017
The Agora Culture

When Tawny Chatmon dreams up mood boards for her intricate photography-based works of black adolescence, she often uses an art-historical painting as a point of departure. For her series “The Awakening” (2018–present), she and her stylist Isabelle Philogene look to the long garments and rich fabrics of Victorian artist Marianne Stokes. For “The Redemption” (2019–present), she references the glittering patterns of Gustav Klimt’s “Golden Phase,” hand-painting gold leaf dresses onto portraits of girls who together form a visual lexicon of black hairstyles. Works from both series will be on view at Fotografiska in New York from October 18th to November 17th.

“With both series, I wanted to create something timeless and beautiful to celebrate and reinforce the beauty of black hair, features, life, and culture,” Chatmon explained, as well as “the delicate intricacies of protecting and raising a black child in today’s world.” Her sitters are typically children within her circle of family and close friends, including her three kids.

Chatmon tackles both contemporary and historical discrimination through the two bodies of work. She counters the idea that black hair is “unkempt, unruly, unattractive, and unprofessional,” she said, which is institutionalized in dress-code policies at school and in the workplace. At the same time, Chatmon fills a space in art-historical narratives. “The historical mis- and underrepresentation of black people in Western art and culture,” she continued, “also plays a part in my desire to reinterpret the historical depiction of black existence—other than ‘other,’ background, or servant—and bring to the forefront black people as the primary figure in my work.”

Luisa Dörr

Itacare, Brazil

Luisa Dörr, from the series “Maysa,” 2014–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

When photographer Luisa Dörr first met Maysa, an 11-year-old from the São Paulo slum district Brasilândia, the girl had dreams of one day becoming Miss Brazil. Dörr was on assignment at Young Miss Brazil when she first photographed Maysa, who was at the show as an attendee. Maysa is pictured beneath a tree, her dark skin and green satin dress awash in golden light.

Five years later, the two have created a long-term and ongoing series as Maysa comes of age. Their true collaboration started when Maysa’s mother reached out to Dörr and asked her if she would take her daughter’s portfolio shots. Dörr waived her fee and photographed Maysa’s six-month journey to winning the Young Miss São Paulo title. She became close with the entire family in the process. Maysa was ultimately awarded the separate “Black Beauty” award, which was created to encourage more participation among young girls of color.“Racism is, unfortunately, very common in Brazil, even though most of our people are a mix of several different ethnicities,” Dörr wrote in her artist statement. “It’s not common to see many black entrants in beauty contests.”

Dörr has continued to photograph Maysa, spending time with her at least twice a year. “When you get that deep documenting someone’s life, it is hard to keep an emotional distance and not get involved,” Dörr said. At 16, Maysa is no longer entering pageants, but she is in school and working as a professional model. Dörr’s photographs navigate beauty and femininity, racial and class disparities, and close familial bonds, all through the eyes of a single girl.

Julie Blackmon

Springfield, Missouri

Julie Blackmon’s photographs of domestic life show scenes of controlled chaos. The rituals of family life—talent shows, poolside afternoons, and drive-in movie nights—unfold in front of her lens like a stage play. Kids rule every room of the house—clothed or diapered, at play, sprawled on furniture, and sometimes in flight. In one image, a baby is frozen indefinitely above her father’s outstretched hands, her small mouth forming a cry.

Even when children are being obedient by practicing their instruments or lining up for a group photograph, other kids create chaos on the edges of the frame. The ephemera of a household—toys, papers, and school projects—are seemingly tossed around haphazardly, too. Yet there’s a conductor to the orchestra, and she’s behind the camera.

Blackmon’s tableaux may look like they come from Anytown, America, but they are based on her own Midwest upbringing. She was raised in “a Jan Steen household”—a Dutch phrase for homes that are messy and exuberant, like the compositions of the Golden Age painter. As such, Blackmon takes direct inspiration from Dutch and Flemish masters in her semi-autobiographical works, as well as the theatrical staging that inspired her predecessors.

While Steen’s boisterous paintings were more overtly allegorical, with proverbs peppered into his scenes, Blackmon makes a broader comment on contemporary American culture. “The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other,” she wrote in her artist statement. Blackmon points to the reverence for centering one’s life around both one’s children and oneself—an often paradoxical way of living.

Elinor Carucci

New York, New York

Elinor Carucci
Father And Son, 2010
Edwynn Houk Gallery

Elinor Carucci faces life with her camera, using it as a filter for the messiness and euphoria the world brings. Her debut monograph, Closer (2002), examined her relationship with her husband through her infidelity and his drug use. Her latest work, Midlife (2019), captures her changing body and the ennui of aging. It follows Mother (2013), the publication of a nine-year series on motherhood, starting with pregnancy.

In 2013, Carucci toldTheTelegraph that she photographed her twins continually from birth. “It’s partly because that’s what I do—I can’t help but be a photographer. I see the world through a lens. It’s how I make sense of it,” she said. “But it’s also more than that: I thought becoming a mother would change who I am and I wanted to reflect that. Things change, not just our bodies. There is something that unites us all in becoming mothers. It’s not the purely beatific Madonna and Child. I hope it reflects a universality.”

In Mother, touch is currency. Her husband wraps his arms around their daughter or hugs their son close in bed. She kisses their son’s scrunched up face, or her daughter’s smile. Her husband’s cropped hand lies on her pregnant belly; she places the back of her hand gently on her son’s cheek.

Across her work, Carucci uses tight frames and strong lighting, showing emotions up close: love, discomfort, boredom, pain. It can be an uncomfortable sense of intimacy. With natural light, one might be able to forget the camera’s voyeuristic presence, but the stage lighting reminds us we are all witness to Carucci’s life—as complicated and unpolished as it may be.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.